The smallest man on the field won a jump ball against a defender four inches his superior before wrestling his body over the goal line, Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill’s signature welcome-back moment after a five-week absence. That 46-yard touchdown capped the opening drive Sunday against the Houston Texans, a play in which Hill’s pure, unteachable athleticism took over.
Six plays into the game, Hill had made a discernible impact, directly leading to seven points. But beneath the surface over four quarters, how much of an effect did his return really have on an offense that was coming off its worst game in two years?
Well, it’s complicated.
Because on a merely numbers analysis, the difference appeared minimal. On the 26 snaps he played that did not include a penalty, the Chiefs averaged 7.1 yards per play, per The Star’s research. On the 20 snaps he stood on the sideline, watching the action, they averaged 6.8 yards per play.
But the film tells a much different story, one in which Hill prompted adjustments from a defense. And one of missed opportunity for an offense.
“When Tyreek out there, defenses have to pay extra attention to him, and I think you saw that at the beginning of the game,” Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. “They kind of started off with more press-man coverage we had been seeing, and he kind of got them a couple times. Then you saw they kind of back off of him.”
Since Hill suffered his shoulder injury in the opener in Jacksonville, the Chiefs have seen plenty of man-to-man press coverage. In Week 5, the Colts played man-to-man defense on 21 of the final 22 drop-backs in the game, daring the Chiefs to beat them. And they couldn’t. Mahomes was 9 for 9 against the zone in that game and 12 of 29 against man-to-man.
Hill is the Chiefs’ best solution to this, his speed making him almost impossible to defend one-on-one every down. And on several plays Sunday in his return, that’s precisely how it unfolded.
Late in the first quarter, the Texans bluffed press coverage on the outside against Hill but backed off before the snap, concerned about his big-play ability. Because of the soft man-to-man coverage, Mahomes faked a handoff on a run-pass option and hurried a throw to Hill on a sideline route. It’s an easy 9-yard pitch and catch on a first-down play.
Sure, it’s not the same significance of the 46-yard touchdown, but it’s clear evidence of a single player prompting changes to defensive schemes.
“For the most part on (RPOs), I’m kind of always throwing them to Tyreek on the side where he’s getting nine yards a catch,” Mahomes said. “You get plus-nine on those throws, those are success plays for us.”
The Texans’ fear of the deep route was even more blatant later in the drive, with cornerback Phillip Gaines backpedaling toward the end zone while lined up on Hill. The Chiefs wide receiver simply stopped his route for an 11-yard hitch.
Once again, it’s easy.
By late in the second quarter, Texans had began devoting more resources toward Hill. Even on single-safety, man-to-man set, the safety often immediately broke toward Hill’s route, essentially ignoring other receivers. Houston invoked similar looks throughout the second half, a single safety assigned strictly to Hill.
That coverage further emphasizes the need for protection up front, with Mahomes forced to go to his second or third read. On a couple of plays, he didn’t wait and fired to Hill into double coverage anyway, not allowing another single-covered receiver to break free.
“He’s a guy that takes added attention, so we need to utilize that and whenever he gets those matchups, take them,” Mahomes said. “And when he gets that attention, we need to use other guys to have success as an offense.”
Eventually, the Texans did something the Colts bypassed over the final three quarters on week earlier. They mix up their coverages. You can’t know for sure whether Hill’s presence alone causes it, but they cycle into more zone options.
No NFL quarterback has been more successful against the zone than Mahomes. And when given the opportunity Sunday, he found Hill underneath the zone for his second touchdown, Hill sliding into the opening.
For one week, the numbers might have equaled similar outputs with Hill on the field versus off it. But the defense’s response suggests otherwise. It suggests future opportunities await as Hill nears closer to a full allotment of snaps.